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The weaponization of water in Palestine


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The Occupation of Water

Amnesty International

The legacy of Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories has been systematic human rights violations on a mass scale. One of its most devastating consequences is the impact of Israel’s discriminatory policies on Palestinians’ access to adequate supplies of clean and safe water.

Soon after Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, in June 1967, the Israeli military authorities consolidated complete power over all water resources and water-related infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). 50 years on, Israel continues to control and restrict Palestinian access to water in the OPT to a level which neither meets their needs nor constitutes a fair distribution of shared water resources.

In November 1967 the Israeli authorities issued Military Order 158, which stated that Palestinians could not construct any new water installation without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli army. Since then, the extraction of water from any new source or the development of any new water infrastructure would require permits from Israel, which are near impossible to obtain. Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation continue to suffer the devastating consequences of this order until today. They are unable to drill new water wells, install pumps or deepen existing wells, in addition to being denied access to the Jordan River and fresh water springs. Israel even controls the collection of rain water throughout most of the West Bank, and rainwater harvesting cisterns owned by Palestinian communities are often destroyed by the Israeli army. As a result, some 180 Palestinian communities in rural areas in the occupied West Bank have no access to running water, according to OCHA. Even in towns and villages which are connected to the water network, the taps often run dry.

While restricting Palestinian access to water, Israel has effectively developed its own water infrastructure and water network in the West Bank for the use of its own citizens in Israel and in the settlements - that are illegal under international law. The Israeli state-owned water company Mekorot has systematically sunk wells and tapped springs in the occupied West Bank to supply its population, including those living in illegal settlements with water for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes. While Mekorot sells some water to Palestinian water utilities, the amount is determined by the Israeli authorities. As a result of continuous restrictions, many Palestinian communities in the West Bank have no choice but to purchase water brought in by trucks at a much high prices ranging from 4 to 10 USD per cubic metre. In some of the poorest communities, water expenses can, at times, make up half of a family’s monthly income.

The Israeli authorities also restrict Palestinians’ access to water by denying or restricting their access to large parts of the West Bank. Many parts of the West Bank have been declared “closed military areas”, which Palestinians may not enter, because they are close to Israeli settlements, close to roads used by Israeli settlers, used for Israeli military training or protected nature reserves.

Israeli settlers living alongside Palestinians in the West Bank – in some cases just a few hundred meters away - face no such restrictions and water shortages, and can enjoy and capitalize on well-irrigated farmlands and swimming pools.

In Gaza, some 90-95 per cent of the water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption. Israel does not allow water to be transferred from the West Bank to Gaza, and Gaza’s only fresh water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population and is being increasingly depleted by over-extraction and contaminated by sewage and seawater infiltration.

The resulting disparity in access to water between Israelis and Palestinians is truly staggering. Water consumption by Israelis is at least four times that of Palestinians living in the OPT. Palestinians consume on average 73 litres of water a day per person, which is well below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended daily minimum of 100 litres per capita. In many herding communities in the West Bank, the water consumption for thousands of Palestinians is as low as 20 litres per person a day, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). By contrast, an average Israeli consumes approximately 300 litres of water a day.

50 years on, it is time for the Israeli authorities to put an end to policies and practices which discriminate against Palestinians in the OPT and to address their desperate need for water security. The Israeli authorities must lift the restrictions currently in place which deny millions of Palestinians access to sufficient water to meet their personal and domestic needs as well as to enjoy their rights to water, food, health, work and an adequate standard of living.

Devastating toll on communities in the Jordan valley

In September 2017 Amnesty International researchers met with residents of the Jordan Valley and witnessed first-hand the catastrophic impact the water restrictions have had on people’s daily lives.

Ihab Saleh, a squash and cucumber farmer living in Ein al-Beida, a Palestinian village of about 1,600 people located in the northern part of the West Bank, is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by Israeli water restrictions. Over the past 25 years he has seen the local spring gradually dry up after the Israeli company Mekorot drilled two wells near the neighbouring Palestinian community of Bardala, to serve Mehola, an Israeli settlement. The amount of water the Israeli authorities allocate to the village has been decreasing over the years, he says, and has been fully cut off on numerous occasions. Despite an agreement to compensate the Palestinian villages of Bardala and Ein al-Beida, since the mid-1970s, Israel has significantly reduced the amount of water available to both communities. 

In addition to the farming villages, many Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley face severe restrictions as a consequence of Israel’s control of Palestinian natural water resources. Often the land they live on is designated by Israel as a “closed military area”. Not only is their access to water limited, they also live under the constant threat of forced evictions through demolition orders on their homes and properties.

Two families living beside highway 90 near the village of Ein Al-Beida have had their houses and property destroyed twice in the last two years. Most recently, in December 2016, the Israeli army destroyed two home structures and all of the water tanks belonging to the families. 

In al-Auja, a village of about 5,200 people, 10 kilometres north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, the situation is much the same. In 1972, Mekorot sunk a well and established a pumping station, close to the Wadi Auja spring. According to residents, the spring used to provide a plentiful supply of water to the village and surrounding agricultural land via a series of irrigation channels. 

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Due to water shortages, farmers in Al-Auja were forced to diversify from their traditional livelihoods, and now grow crops that are less water-intensive and also less profitable. While in the past they grew mainly citrus fruit and were capable of exporting them, they rely now on less water intensive vegetable crops such as zucchini, cucumber and squash, which can sustain a cultivation period of three to four months through the winter season. Many residents of Al-Auja have also been forced to find work in farms located in three neighbouring Israeli settlements, which have unrestricted access to water.

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Israeli settlements’ access to water

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Swimming Pool in Ma’ale Adumim. With water supply roughly four times greater than that provided to Palestinian communities, Israeli settlements such as Ma'ale Adumim stand in stark contrast to their Palestinian neighbours. © Amnesty International

 

 

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An Israeli settlement date farm close to the village of Al-Auja, in the Jordan Valley, 21 September, 2017. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods produced in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land are exported internationally each year, despite the fact that the vast majority of states have officially condemned the settlements as illegal under international law. © Amnesty International

Lush vegetation in the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. With a population of 37,670, the settlement is one of the largest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. © Amnesty International

 

The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. 
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 15, para 1

The right to water has been recognized as being derived from the right to an adequate standard of living, and therefore implicitly contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other instruments. The right to water includes availability of sufficient water for personal and domestic uses, physical access within or in the immediate vicinity of each household, affordability, and adequate quality of water. States must prioritize, as part of their immediate obligations, access for everyone to the minimum essential amount of water that is sufficient and safe for personal and domestic uses to prevent disease. States have to adopt the necessary measures directed towards the full realization of the right to water, including by taking positive measures to assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right.

Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power in the OPT, has well defined responsibilities to respect the Palestinians’ human right to water. It must not only refrain from taking actions that violate this right or undermine the Palestinian population’s opportunity to realize the right, but also protect the Palestinian population from interference by third parties in their enjoyment of the right to water, and it must take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps to ensure that this right is fulfilled and fully realized.

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